Wading into the Pink Slime

If you know me you know I am somewhat obsessive about food and go to great lengths and expense to source the food I feed my family. I do this because it matters to me as a core value, it’s about connecting with something primordial in the human existence.

What I do not believe, broadly speaking, is that the individual food items that I purchase are more or less healthy than grocery store bought alternatives. What makes the food I serve my family healthy is diversity of our menu, portion size, an emphasis on vegetables and lean proteins, fewer fats, and a lower volume of grains than the typical American or European diet consists of. In other words, what is served and how it is prepared delivers more punching power than where it comes from or what label it has on it (the organic industry industry is disgraceful in how they have subverted grocery aisles with high priced products that are not demonstrably better than non-organic labeled options).

With this prelude you might find it surprising that in the debate about processed meat treated with anhydrous ammonia (aka Pink Slime) I come down on the side of pink. This product has been defamed by a hysteria driven media campaign that presupposes this food product (and that’s what it is, a product) is unsafe in the absence of evidence suggesting safety issues, and fails to address the substantive issues of how society provides a food supply to a large population.

This is a core problem with fashionable foodies and other well-intentioned people who on even days declare we should let science be a defining force while on odd days rejecting science because it can’t prove the negative. The science is overwhelming, pink slime is nutrient providing but critics are demanding the impossible, which is to prove that it is not unsafe.

The meat products industry is pretty remarkable in a couple of respects, the first being that they are able to deliver to the retail supply chain an uninterrupted supply of safe meat products that are highly perishable and subject considerable bacterial contamination risk. In addition to that they let no animal product go to waste, which is an insult to the animal aside from being bad for the bottom line; literally every part of the animal gets processed into a food, consumer, pet, and agriculture feed and fertilizer products. Pink slime recovers 12-15 lbs of beef from every animal slaughtered and the recovery of this meat product means that 1.5 million fewer animals are slaughtered each year to meet the needs of American and export consumers of beef.

This is where pink slime is derived from, the remnant pieces of butchered beef are collected and trimmed before being processed with heat to remove excess fat and then pushed through a large die where the ground meat product is produced. The risk here is that ground meat has a high contamination risk potential. All store bought ground meats have a high contamination risk relative to whole cuts because bacteria grows on the surface of meat and when ground becomes distributed through the product. This is why you should cook a hamburger patty to medium but you can get away with a steak served rare… unless you grind your own meats, which is what I do at home.

The bacterias in question are particularly onerous for elderly and children, e.coli among others, so mitigate this risk the processors subject the meat to anhydrous ammonia, which is gaseous ammonia absent of water. Ammonia is a powerful antiseptic and this process effectively reduces the bacteria load in the meat product to safe levels.

Media reports have succeeded in freaking consumers out about the meat being pushed through a die… despite the fact that this is how all ground meat is prepared. It’s how I prepare ground meat at home, albeit on a much smaller scale, by using a meat grinder attachment on my KitchenAid stand mixer (ask me about how I make freakishly good salmon cakes with this).

The entire pink slime debate is manufactured and pits food snobs, who would do away with industrialized food with reckless disregard for the consequences to the economy and food supply, against average Americans who are struggling to afford proteins of all kinds in this economy (food inflation is very real and it impacts middle and low income families as much as high gas prices). The media has been, no surprise, irresponsible by not shining a light on dubious claims about the hazards of antibacterial treatments (remember all the coverage of how immunizations were linked to autism, and then when thoroughly debunked there was scant coverage to be found?).

The solution should not have been a knee jerk demonization about a food product that is responsible and safe, but rather a push for labeling requirements to let people decide for themselves what they want to serve to their family. And for the record, I would have no problem eating pink slime or serving it to my family… it’s food, get over it.

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